Chef reveals the reality of celebrity to Culinary Arts students
Culinary students might have been been expecting celebrity chef Lynn Crawford to ply them with tales of cooking for, and eating with, the rich and famous during her week as NAIT’s Hokanson Chef in Residence last March.
Instead, they got a lesson in respect, humility and the value of hard work.
While most know Crawford best as a Food Network Canada star and cookbook author, the insights she shared were less about the bright lights of culinary fame than about the satisfaction of getting down and dirty on the farm.
That ethos was at the heart of Crawford’s popular Food Network show Pitchin’ In, for which she spent four years travelling North America, working alongside those who produce our food and, in the process, gaining a new appreciation for the literal bread and butter of her vocation.
“Have you ever picked oranges before?” she asks the dozens of culinary students gathered around her in the demonstration kitchen. “It’s a hoot but it’s hard work, and I’ve never looked at an orange the same way again. It’s about respecting product. An orange is so not an orange.”
An understanding and regard for ingredients and where they come from is “a huge part of the integrity of a fine chef,” says Crawford. “It has completely changed me as a chef.”
So has flapping around a duck farm (“They’re dirty and they smell really bad”), working on a shrimp boat (“We were pulling up 15,000 pounds of those little baby shrimp and they’re so sweet, it was like candy”), and fishing for crab and crawfish in Louisiana (“You tie a turkey leg onto the end of a string and you throw it into the bayou and hope the alligators don’t eat it”).
Crawford’s wild tales were a window into another world for these aspiring chefs, many of whom have likely never dug a potato from an Edmonton garden let alone picked an orange fresh off the tree or worked on a fishing boat. Her underlying message, however, applies as much to the backyard as the bayou.
“Don’t scratch the surface. Really know where your food comes from,” she says.
As Crawford works her way around the room on that first day, she asks each student what he or she aspires to be.
The answers are as varied as the students themselves, who range in age from 18 to almost 50. One wants to be a food truck operator, another hopes to work in a hotel kitchen in some exotic locale. One young man says his goal is “to be famous.”
For students with aspirations of celebrity, spending time with the likes of Crawford can be a great reality check, says Perry Michetti, associate dean of the School of Hospitality and Culinary Arts. “Hearing how hard she worked to get to where she is, and seeing how much she values teamwork in the kitchen, it’s a great lesson for them,” he adds.
While Crawford knows a thing or two about being famous – she’s one of the country’s top chefs and arguably its most recognizable female chef – that was not her goal when she started.
The butcher’s daughter who grew up in the suburbs of Toronto says she had “no aspirations other than being the very best” when she decided to attend culinary school.
“If you had said to me 20 years ago that I would be executive chef at the Four Seasons in New York City, that I would be on television shows airing around the world, I would have said, ‘No. I never thought about those things.’”
When one of the students, a woman who says she will turn 50 before she graduates from NAIT’s culinary program, asks her, “Did you ever think, ‘I can’t do it?’”
Crawford’s answer comes without hesitation. “No. Not once.”
Crawford started out with plans to be a nurse, after her father suffered a heart attack when she was 18. “Believe it or not, I’m a very caring person,” she says. “I wanted to help people.”
But nursing school was not for her, nor was fine arts, the path she tried next. Instead, she decided to pursue her passion for food and wine in culinary school at Toronto’s George Brown College.
Fearing she was getting a late start because she was already in her early 20s, she worked double-time to catch up, gorging on knowledge, practice and experience.
She went to school during the day and worked overnight at the Delta Chelsea Hotel, learning to painstakingly segment grapefruit, to bake fresh croissants, to make even the simplest tasks perfect and extraordinary.
“Knowledge is strength,” she tells the students. “Submerge yourself in the culinary world.”
Little-known facts about Lynn Crawford
- In her very early days, she worked at a greasy spoon called the Homesteader, where the cook told her to throw a hamburger in the deep fryer. “I said, ‘But there’s a grill right here!’ And he said, ‘It’s faster to just throw it in the fryer.’”
- She comes from a long line of butchers, including her grandfather, father, uncle and aunt.
- She loves pickles; her chocolate lab is named Charlie Pickles.
- Her favourite junk food is popcorn.
- She has a sweet tooth. Her favourite chocolate bars are Skor and Crunchie
The advice resonates with student Julia Hogendoorn (Culinary Arts ’14), 21, who admits she “freaked out” and “may have screamed” when she found out Crawford would be the Chef in Residence for Hogendoorn’s final term.
“She seems to care about what food means to people as opposed to just being a skillful chef,” says Hogendoorn, who hopes to own her own restaurant someday, just as Crawford does with Ruby Watchco in Toronto.
“It makes you love what you’re doing instantaneously when you see somebody like that, who loves food so much.”
Hogendoorn’s plan is not to skyrocket to celebrity but to slog it out in kitchens and learn as much as she can. She’s already worked in fast food and on a peach farm in Ontario for the summer. Now, after impressing Crawford during the chef’s time at NAIT, she’s thrilled to have landed an entry-level job as a cook at Ruby Watchco.
“People say they want to be a famous chef, but I’d rather just be the best I can be and help others along the way.”
For student Kari Marchand, a 43-year-old mother of two teenagers who is now preparing for a career in the food world, Crawford was an inspiration – as enthusiastic, down-to-earth and hard-working as Marchand had imagined her to be.
“She was very much what you see on TV.”
Marchand, who is now in her final semester, says Crawford encouraged students to be bold, both in their willingness to try new food combinations and in knocking on doors in pursuit of opportunity.
“She said to look in the mirror every day and think how you could improve, because not every day’s going to be your best day. That really stuck with me.”
Hogendoorn says her experience with Crawford has given her confidence, both in her own leadership skills and her ability as a chef. During Crawford’s time at NAIT, Hogendoorn, Marchand and some of their classmates got the chance to work alongside Crawford preparing meals.
“It felt really natural but it was also a different experience than I’ve had before, with a mentor right beside you, working just as hard as you,” says Hogendoorn.
For Crawford, too, the time spent preparing special meals with the students was a highlight of her week, she says.
“To see their faces and that sense of accomplishment and pride and shared excitement … I love that, I do.”
Crawford’s focus on self-reliance, hard work and determination over flash and celebrity gave students like Hogendoorn a new measure of confidence, and a respect for themselves and their own goals.
“I’ve always been a big believer that you are what you make of yourself, and that’s what she was huge on,” says Hogendoorn. “She made me realize that the only thing standing in your way is yourself saying you can’t do it. She is proof that if you strive for the very best, then it’s going to all fall into place.”
Hokanson Chef in Residence
This unique program provides students in the School of Hospitality and Culinary Arts with a rare opportunity to learn from the best chefs in the world.
The program – the result of a generous donation from John and Susan Hokanson – began with Canadian celebrity chef Rob Feenie (2009), followed by David Adjey (2010), Susur Lee (2011), Massimo Capra (2012) and Chris Cosentino (2013).